Timber theft and trespass are ongoing problems for forestland owners in Kentucky. Timber theft is the intentional stealing of timber. This involves a criminal trespass and a criminal theft. Timber theft can be criminally prosecuted as a felony and the owner having the timber stolen can seek restitution. Timber trespass is the unintentional harvesting and removal of timber. This occurs when a boundary line is unknowingly crossed in the woods and timber is removed.
Regardless of whether a timber theft or trespass occurs, Kentucky has a civil law that provides the "rules" for compensation to landowners having their timber cut. Unfortunately, many local law enforcement agencies are not equipped to handle timber theft or trespass cases and the victim has to assume a significant amount of involvement (monetarily and time) in prosecution and/or settlement. Both forestland owners selling timber and those wanting to protect their forestland need to understand the law, the risk factors for timber trespass and theft, how to decrease the chances for unauthorized cutting and finally what to do and how to get help in case of a timber issue.
The following situations increase the risk of timber theft or timber trespass:
- Landowners who do NOT live on the property or in the community (absentee landowners).
- Owners who live in or adjacent to their woodlands, but are not able to see or visit all their property.
- Lands where there is an ongoing boundary dispute or deed overlap, or where there has been a historical difference of opinion on boundary lines.
- An adjacent timber harvest is under way or proposed.
- Woodlands that contain large high-quality timber of a valuable species.
To help decrease the potential for loss, the following recommendations should be considered:
Deeds and Boundary Marking - Make a copy of the deed and keep it available. Also, have your boundaries clearly marked and/or posted. Even if you have not had your property recently surveyed, it is wise to mark the boundaries.
Contact Adjacent Landowners - Contact adjacent landowners and let them know you value your woodlands and are interested in protecting the property and currently do not plan on harvesting timber. If you do not live on the property or are unable to walk it readily, ask adjacent owners if they would watch your property and provide them with your contact information. Ask them to contact you if they see any harvesting activity on surrounding properties or on your property.
Get Help From a Professional Forester - Have the Division of Forestry develop a free-of-charge, forest stewardship plan for your woodlands. The forester can advise you if you have any merchantable timber. Further, hire a consulting forester to determine the timber value. This information can be used to determine the basis for capital gains if you are planning to sell timber in the future and the consultant can also alert you to potentially valuable timber that might be at risk relative to timber theft.
It is a crime to trespass and steal timber. In Kentucky, trespass in a wooded area is a Class B misdemeanor with a $250 fine and 90 days in jail when a fence is crossed. If no fence is crossed and someone knowingly crossed the boundary it is a $100 fine. Proof of the latter generally requires the boundaries to be marked or clearly designated, and/or proof that the person had been notified of clear boundary designations. If either of these occurred and over $300 of timber was removed, then the person could be charged with a Class D felony theft punishable by one to five years in prison. Victims have the right to be compensated for the value of the timber stolen and the cost of repairing damages (including damages from a trespass if no timber was cut). However, to obtain compensation above and beyond what is provided for by criminal law or if the person cutting your timber was not convicted then you can sue under the Timber Trespass Law (civil law KRS 364.130). This law indicates that you can sue for triple compensation of stumpage value and damages if you were not contacted in writing seven days prior to when the adjacent harvest started, or if you were notified and you objected to the harvest and boundaries as they were presented.
For additional information about timber theft and trespass, please review the University of Kentucky, Department of Forestry's Timber Theft and Trespass publication.